XXII.2 March + April 2015
Page: 40
Digital Citation

Untangling running

Paweł Woźniak, Kristina Knaving, Staffan Björk, Morten Fjeld

Since running has low entry costs and is widely available, it has become a key fitness activity included in local and national health strategies. Training programs intended to help people start running are reported in the mainstream press, attracting interest from people intrigued by the sport’s health and leisure benefits. Marketing campaigns have been launched to expand national runner communities and persuade more people to be part of the running experience. As a consequence, many design efforts in human-computer interaction (HCI) have investigated how to design systems promoting a more active lifestyle [1]. These efforts are part of a larger trend of using HCI tools to build the well-being and health of society through technological interventions [2]. We believe this needs to be complemented by understanding usage in the wild, as detailed accounts of the users’ experience can truly inform future design [3].

The media image of a dedicated runner depicts a highly motivated individual in branded clothing who runs in perfect weather on a well-prepared route. When running is presented in this way, it creates a vision that spreads to other fields, such as running technology design. The technology we see today is presented in the context of situations where running is easy and fun. Technology for motivational support is mainly designed for entry-level runners. After conducting extensive research in understanding individual runners and runner communities, we realized that current technology supports only a subset of seasoned runners’ needs. Instead of creating technology for the inspiring run in perfect weather, we wish to design for the tougher aspects of running.

People who already run regularly and participate in races are a user group different from novices, and they have different expectations of their running technology. Can technology help the runner smeared in his own spit during the last mile of a marathon? How do we support runners when they are nervously pacing around the room trying to decide what to do with their time when they are injured? Can we help ease the frustrations of families when their lives are starting to be organized according to training programs? What support can we provide when a race is not going as planned? To answer those questions, we are studying and designing for advanced amateur runners—people who devote significant amounts of their time to running but are not professional runners.


Engaging with Runners

We strived to gain a new understanding of running and technology and to deviate from conventional approaches. Traditionally, HCI understands running in terms of exertion. Past work successfully used this design lens in designing runner-support systems as interfaces that can be used during physical exercise [4]. Another strain of research explored approaches to persuade people to take up regular running [5]. We focus on the social understanding of running and embrace the bigger picture, which includes not only the runner but also their friends, family, fellow runners, and those cheering them on during races. We are augmenting the traditional HCI approach through connecting with sports research in areas such as social psychology, and conducting ethnographic work in the field. We engage with runner clubs, local athletics authorities, and runner families to understand how running affects everyday life in order to investigate how technology can fit into daily routines dominated by running.

For the past two years, we have worked together with running groups and race organizers to understand how technology can help runners. We have learned how support and competition stimulate runners, and how races are key elements in regular training-run motivation. We observed how runners squeeze in their runs between their daily activities and how dependent they are on their family for support. For some, running is so important for their feeling of well-being that they are upset if they are forced to miss a single training session. This prompted us to design technology for dedicated runners that will fit into the social world of running. There are two key issues that emerge from our ethnographic work for which technology is still lacking.

Support and supporters. Support means more than just cheering at the sidelines. The majority of our randomly chosen sample of supporters at races were also active runners. Runners understand each other, so designs may want to take into account how other runners can inspire and inform even when they do not run together. Supporters prefer large, organized races, as those events are careful to create settings that cater to supporters as well as runners. These events act as a connection between runners and supporters. In contrast, remote supporters (i.e., those who stay at home while their friends or family are participating in a race) do not get a boost from the shared environment. While these supporters do have the desire to take an active part in the race, it is difficult for them to maintain focus, as they have limited influence on the race and may have a different perception of space and time than the runners. These design considerations make designing technology for remote supporters particularly complex.

We are learning how to design remote support technology that will enable friends and family to remotely cheer their runners on during races. We do this through the design and prototyping of custom devices that enable runners to request help and supporters to send their support. We are investigating systems that incorporate ambient tactile and light input, as many of our runner interviewees dislike the headphone-based solutions currently available on the market. The user response so far has been positive, with runners claiming that remote support created a connection that engaged them and gave them perceived energy boosts. Supporters were happy they were able to help their runner friends and family even though they could not be present at the race. Supporters who are also runners described having vicarious experiences of the race.

Supporting recall. Another common problem for runners is reflecting on past training efforts and race performances. With GPS watches and mobile running apps easily available, runners now have access to extensive data about their runs. However, we observed that runners often find it hard to tell stories about their runs, especially races. The mental state of a runner is such that it prevents them from remembering everything. As a consequence, runners often mention that they cannot properly reflect on their past experiences to improve their performance and training routines. Currently no technology supports recall for runners, leaving GPS traces overlaid onto a map as their only means of remembering. Most often, the only stories runners share are those of injuries and quitting races (somehow it is easier to remember the negative aspects of a run).

We are addressing the need for more runner narratives by exploring possibilities for additional data gathering as well as using the data already gathered in a more efficient way. Positional data from mobile apps and GPS watches is already available and will soon be augmented by shoe-mounted sensors such as runScribe (runscribe.com). This creates an opportunity for HCI to build systems that will support sense-making based on runner data, which will lead to a better understanding of the runner experience. We have investigated how one can build new forms of visualization as an alternative to map-and-path activity displays, in the hope that better representations of the runner’s surroundings will facilitate recall.

But new forms of mapping activities are not enough to allow runners to understand and reflect on their training. Gathering visual data may be one supplementary solution. Many sports practitioners use sports cameras such as GoPro to record and analyze training sessions. In the case of running, such devices are too heavy and certainly impossible to use during races. As many runners report that race situations differ significantly from training sessions in terms of how the runner perceives the exertion and the surroundings, a lightweight solution for gathering visual data may be very useful. We are experimenting with using lifelogging [6] solutions toward that end. Juxtaposing position, pace, weather data, and possible other numerical sources with visual snapshots of the route will provide a vehicle for discussing past runs.

New Challenges for Interaction Design

While technology has indeed been successful in promoting running and providing basic data on training, there are still many unexplored design spaces. Our studies of runners and runner communities show that technology can support the less pleasant aspects of running as well as help runners reflect on how their training affects their bodies. We also see a need for designing not only for the runner but also for their social environment, taking into account the ways in which running affects the everyday routines and the needs of supporters.

Building better interactive technology for runners still requires many field tests and failed designs, but there is surely much potential for HCI to improve the lives of advanced amateur runners.


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3. Rogers, Y., Connelly, K., Tedesco, L., et al. Why it’s worth the hassle: The value of in-situ studies when designing Ubicomp. Ubicomp 2007, 336–353.

4. Mueller, F., Agamanolis, S., and Picard, R. Exertion interfaces: Sports over a distance for social bonding and fun. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2003, 561–568.

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6. Kärkkäinen, T., Vaittinen, T., and Väänänen-Vainio-Mattila, K. I don’t mind being logged, but want to remain in control: A field study of mobile activity and context logging. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2010, 163–172.


Paweł Woźniak is a Ph.D. student at t2i Interaction Lab, Chalmers University of Technology. He researches interfaces that help humans make sense of the data surrounding them. His dream is to start the first HCI lab in Poland. Paweł holds an M.Sc. in computer engineering from Lodz University of Technology. pawelw@chalmers.se

Kristina Knaving is a Ph.D. student in interaction design at University of Gothenburg. Her research focuses on how to visualize and narrate information for playful and motivational experiences. She has a M.Sc. in media technology and engineering from the University of Linköping. kristina.knaving@air.gu.se

Staffan Björk is a full professor in the Department of Applied IT at Chalmers and Gothenburg University. He has a Ph.D. in informatics from Gothenburg University and conducts research within the areas of gameplay design, pervasive games, and interaction design. staffan.bjork@ait.gu.se

Morten Fjeld is a professor in HCI at Chalmers University. In 2005, he founded the t2i Interaction Lab (www.t2i.se). He holds a dual M.Sc. degree in applied mathematics from NTNU (Trondheim) and ENSIMAG (Grenoble), and a Ph.D. from ETH (Zurich). In 2011, he was a visiting professor at NUS Singapore. fjeld@chalmers.se


UF1Figure. Researchers explaining how to use a remote support device just before a large cross-country race. Working on the race day entails interacting with users who are stressed and extremely focused, so demonstration routines need to be rehearsed beforehand.

UF2Figure. An alternative approach to visualizing running activities. A map with a watercolor filter that depicts only salient features in the landscape may facilitate recalling the runner surroundings. A color map is used to visualize elevation for the track itself.

UF3Figure. A series of race pictures taken in a cross-country event with a lightweight lifelogging camera attached to the runner’s running belt. Can we use these images to help runners remember more about the race and understand their performance better?

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